Uzbekistan: Europe’s Sanctions Matter
Asia Briefing N°54
6 Nov 2006
After the indiscriminate killing of civilians by Uzbek security forces in the city of Andijon in 2005, the European Union imposed targeted sanctions on the government of President Islam Karimov. EU leaders called for Uzbekistan to allow an international investigation into the massacre, stop show trials and improve its human rights record. Now a number of EU member states, principally Germany, are pressing to lift or weaken the sanctions, as early as this month. The Karimov government has done nothing to justify such an approach. Normalisation of relations should come on EU terms, not those of Karimov. Moreover, his dictatorship is looking increasingly fragile, and serious thought should be given to facing the consequences of its ultimate collapse, including the impact on other fragile states in Central Asia such as Kyrgyzstan.
On 12-13 May 2005, the Uzbek government responded to an armed uprising in Andijon with indiscriminate force, gunning down hundreds of mostly unarmed civilians. Over 400 refugees who fled to Kyrgyzstan were eventually given asylum in third countries, after intense pressure from a number of Western governments, in particular the U.S. After the first of many trials stemming from the Andijon events, the EU imposed a visa ban on a dozen Uzbek officials most directly involved in the massacre. When EU foreign ministers hold their monthly meeting on 13-14 November 2006, they will decide whether to renew, modify or drop the sanctions.
Since the sanctions were imposed, the crackdown on dissent has not relented. Journalists, human rights activists, and religious leaders, among others, have faced harassment, arrest, torture and lengthy prison sentences. Those seeking refuge abroad have come under pressure from Uzbek and other security services, and some have been forcibly repatriated. Uzbekistan has held show trials of accused Islamic extremists, with the all but inevitable convictions based on confessions extracted through torture. Rather than proving itself a valuable ally in the “war on terror”, the government continues to create conditions in which popular support for radical Islam is likely to grow.
The government maintains tight control over the country’s main export commodities – cotton, gas and gold – ensuring that revenues go not to communities involved in their production, or to the national budget, but to the regime itself and its key allies, particularly those in the security services. Perhaps motivated by an increasing sense of insecurity, the regime has begun looting some of its foreign joint-venture partners. Shuttle trading and labour migration to Russia and Kazakhstan are increasingly threatened economic lifelines for millions of Uzbeks.
Rather than take serious measures to improve conditions, President Karimov has resorted to scapegoating and cosmetic changes, such as the October 2006 firing of Andijon governor Saydullo Begaliyev, whom he has publicly called partially responsible for the previous year’s events. On the whole, however, Karimov continues to deny that his regime’s policies were in any way at fault, while the same abuses are unchecked in other provinces.
Karimov’s government is brittle and rife with rivalries. The president is increasingly isolated, surrounded by a shrinking circle of cronies. Speculation about possible successors is rife, with his daughter, Gulnora Karimova, and her putative ally, Moscow-based Uzbek oligarch Alisher Usmonov, mentioned most frequently as possibilities. There is small likelihood of a popular uprising but a palace coup by disgruntled members of the elite is more feasible, though for now at least Karimov’s hold over the security services appears fairly solid. However it occurs, succession is unlikely to be smooth and may seriously threaten stability in the region as a whole.
The EU should:
renew its visa ban sanctions for a year, extending coverage to Karimov, his family, recent major appointees and members of his inner circle;
freeze the assets of those subject to the visa ban so they cannot access the European banking system; and
concentrate on building resilience in the neighbouring states that already suffer from the instability and economic policies in Uzbekistan.
Bishkek/Brussels, 6 November 2006